Kyle Hayes: Great expectations won’t hinder Limerick

Nine months on and the thrill of the win has yet to wear off.

Talk to Kyle Hayes and you get the impression that it never will. That if this kid lives to be a hundred he will still be able to produce a twinkle in his fading eyes and smile in wonder when he thinks back to Limerick’s All-Ireland success last August.

“It was even better (than imagined), to be honest,” he reflected. “The moments after every game - the final, especially - were unbelievable. If you talked to past players, they’d probably say the same. They’d never replace that feeling again. Even if you were a manager, it would never be the same. I think it’s just that special feeling and it brought us even closer together as well.”

He would be lying if he said he expected to be a senior All-Ireland winner by the age of 20. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Hayes had a date in and around 2022 or 2023 as the point in time when he might earn that Celtic Cross.

He’d be 24 or 25 by then, he reckoned. A young man still but old enough in this day and age of the senior student-athlete and 31-hour-a-week GAA career to be considered a veteran and, so, someone with the nous to go all the way.

He feels lucky in that sense.

Lucky to have arrived kicking and screaming into a county at the same time as so many other would-be hurlers whose lungs would be tested on hurling’s elite playing fields, and lucky to come of age under a management as enlightened as John Kiely’s.

Lucky enough, too, to have turned the corner from child to teenager just as Limerick’s academy system was cranking into gear and, not least, lucky enough now to press on with a career without the monkey of ending that county drought on his back.

That’s a lot of luck but Limerick have earned it and the manner in which they added an Allianz Hurling League title to their list of achievements has only added to the case for the argument that champions make good their own fortunes.

“Some people might look at the league as a trials basis ... and we did. We used a lot of players. I spoke about our squad in the past and how special it is and how anyone could replace anyone on the team and it would make no difference.

Probably in years gone by, All-Ireland champions mightn’t have focused on the league as much. But if you look at the great Kilkenny teams, they were winning leagues every year along with All-Irelands and Leinster championships. It’s still a national title.

Hayes and Limerick get their All-Ireland defence underway against Cork at the Gaelic Grounds tomorrow and, if the Rebels are under pressure after the loss to Tipperary, then the hosts have a very different measure of weight on their shoulders. Or, should have.

They may or may not retain their All-Ireland, and they may or may not add a Munster to their collection this summer, but any time spent in the company of Hayes or his colleagues leaves you with the sense that they will not cave under the expectation.

Hayes gave a revealing account of his All-Ireland weekend in a player’s diary for the Irish Examiner in the week after the All-Ireland final last year and the laidback manner with which he fronted up to and then absorbed the occasion was fascinating. Left to his own devices in his own house the night before the game, he binged on a Netflix series, watched a bit of sport and then slept like the dead for almost nine hours before the biggest day of his life.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t be thinking about things or getting carried away with stuff. I’m just chilled out and take things as it comes. 

“It’s probably a good way to be in hurling, especially when those big matches come, because I see some players working it up in their heads and they’re very tense. You can see that they’re trying to do something right and it’s not sticking, or they’re just not striking it right. I’m lucky, in that sense, that I don’t get like that. It’s experience. I’m playing matches for Limerick since I was U14. I know, obviously, that wasn’t as big, but it’s just playing different counties every few months.”

Who can tell what the future will bring?

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